The Stettheimer Dollhouse: A Biography, Part II
by Kaitlin Vaughan
The House Changes Homes
“Tucked away in the museum’s toy collection, the Stettheimer dolls’ house has been a pilgrimage site for families whose daughters (and occasionally sons) have shared Carrie’s obsession.”
Janine Mileaf, "The House That Carrie Built: The Stettheimer Doll's House of the 1920s,” 1996
The Museum of the City of New York, or MCNY, was founded in 1923 for the “consideration of all things New York.” Ettie found it to be the perfect host for Carrie’s glamorous mini home; the museum’s curators graciously agreed. Dollhouses are a popular museum accession as they are an artifact that displays a particular time and place in history. This house was probably especially appealing to the MCNY due to the famous artwork displayed in its tiny gallery. Since the dollhouse was left incomplete, Ettie took it upon herself to finish the dining room and the art gallery, which would become the “piéce de resistance” of the dollhouse (Clark 2009, 6). Ettie claims that she generated all the necessary additions in the way that Carrie would have wanted it, though she admittedly was not aware of Carrie’s exact plans. In the dining room, the walls were painted grey, and the floor covered in grey velvet. The table is set -- fragile goblets and plates sitting atop the lace cloth. On the wall hangs a photograph of Florine’s famous portrait of Carrie. The room comes across as a little lackluster in comparison to the other more visually exciting rooms of the home.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Dining Room on the left. Photo © flickr user slgckgc; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY 2.0.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Dining Room. Photo © flickr user slgckgc; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY 2.0.
Carrie’s original plan for the art gallery included a portrait of the Stettheimer family painted by Florine; however, Florine passed away before the miniature portrait could be painted. Instead of miniaturizing one of Florine’s portraits of the family as she had done in the dining room, Ettie tossed the idea. She picked from the miniature artworks that Carrie had commissioned or were gifted, deciding herself which pieces should hang and how they should be arranged. Though there were 28 miniature works of art total, Ettie only chose 13. Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase graphite drawing, given to Carrie for her 49th birthday, is perhaps the most famous piece in the gallery, said to be “in no way inferior in quality to the famous original” (Jacobs 1965, 314). Alexander Archipenko’s Nude, Louis Bouche’s Mama’s Boy, Gaston Lachaise’s two nudes and alabaster sculpture Venus, Carl Sprinchorn’s Dancers, Albert Gleizes’ Seated Figure and Bermuda Landscape, Paul Thevenaz’s L’Ombre and Nude with Flowing Hair, Marguerite Zorach’s Bather and Bathers, William Zorach’s Mother and Child, and one unknown artist painting of a ship are all included in the gallery. There is no record of her curatorial ideas regarding the installation. The room was left mostly empty, with a few chairs pushed against the walls, and a log lined, gilded fireplace.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Casey and Sonja; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse: detail of Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Mark B Schlemmer; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.
The rest of the house remained as Carrie had designed it. The museum removed the sidewalls and replaced them with glass so that visitors could circumnavigate the house and see all sides. Fittingly for a family of socialites, Ettie decided to throw the dollhouse a “dollhouse warming party” at the museum, which we can only assume was a grand, over the top, social event. Janet Pinney, the museum’s toy curator at the time, created a simple catalogue for the dollhouse in 1947. In the book, Pinney describes each room briefly with a separate section devoted to the artworks in the gallery. Ettie wrote a brief introduction, stating that she believed it was Carrie’s hope to “exhibit the house… and in the end to present it to a museum; and I feel certain that no repository would have been more satisfactory to her than the museum of her own city” (Museum of the City of New York 1947). The introduction was placed alongside a photograph of Carrie in a Red Cross uniform. Ettie's statement revealed very little information about Carrie, and Ettie put her own spin on Carrie’s motivations.
“As these introductory remarks are meant to lead to a more intimate acquaintance with this dollhouse and its maker than would be possible without them, I am tempted to confide to all interested that I look upon this production of Carrie’s as a facile and more or less posthumous substitute for the work she was eminently fitted to adopt as a vocation, had circumstances been favorable-- stage design” (Museum of the City of New York 1947, 11).
From the start, the dollhouse was a popular addition to the museum, attracting attention from many admirers. The art gallery was a particular draw for the dollhouse; a curator even once borrowed the Duchamp from its tiny walls to display in a show of life-size Duchamps (Jacobs 1965, 311). However, according to John Noble, a former toy curator at the MCNY, the dollhouse’s fanfare eventually began to die down. In his 1976 book, A Fabulous Dollhouse of the Twenties: The Famous Stettheimer Dollhouse at the Museum of the City of New York, Noble writes how greatly it upset him to witness the dollhouse unnoticed and even scoffed at, citing a visitor who called the house “downright dowdy.” This comment incensed Noble and incited his drive to reverse the disinterest; he began to “reexamine the house with sharply focused eyes,” reaching for a way to bring the house back to its original glittering reception and reputation, when it was “outrageously chic,” and “conceived as a brilliant thing; elegant, frivolous, sophisticated,” and “sparkling and vivacious” (1976, 6).
Noble acknowledged that “so slowly as to be unnoticed, colors had faded, fabrics had yellowed, gilt paint and silver leaf had tarnished;” something needed to be done to reverse the wilting of the house and return it to its original glory (1976, 6). The MCNY concurred, and a group of conservators were commissioned to operate on the dollhouse. Everything was thoroughly cleaned, new fabrics were brought in, and lights were replaced. Despite these steps, much to John Noble’s chagrin, the house still appeared “faded and devitalized like an old photograph” (1976, 6).
Noble introduced some novel curatorial ideas to bring the house back to life. By likening the dollhouse to a house museum, he argued for the employment of house museum techniques. To better engage visitors, house museums “[re]arranged [furniture] as though it were in use, as though the occupant had just stepped out—needlework and newspaper tossed aside, a letter half written, an apple half peeled” (1976, 6). Noble convinced the museum to implement these methodologies inside the dollhouse, and was assured that following these changes the house would never again become “depressing to contemplate” (1976, 6).
After completing research, Noble discovered that Carrie once planned to create dolls for the house (though this has been contested by other sources). The Museum of the City of New York decided to create the dolls themselves, John Noble leading the charge, physically modeling the dolls after the family and often pulling from Florine’s paintings for stylistic inspiration. Thirty dolls were made in total, one for Carrie, Ettie, Florine, and their mother Rosetta, and the remainder devised in the likeness of some of the more famous guests of the family’s soirees. The reconstruction team gathered information about the decorations used for parties in the Stettheimer home, and prepared the house for a miniature, fictional Christmas party-- complete with a glowing fire, tinsel, and cellophane curtains. Noble was delighted by the transformation, declaring that the “festive house, with its glittering, ephemeral decorations and its soigné occupants, shows us a glimpse of a lifestyle now quite vanished, a glimpse of people who have become legends. And as we peer into the charming rooms we can catch, faintly but clearly, the echo of their vanished laughter” (1976, 8).
The dolls were somewhat comically arranged around the household. An all-star cast lined each room, playing a distinct role in Noble’s grand performance. A cheerful Carrie greets guests from the foyer, dressed in an outfit similar to one that appeared in a portrait Florine had painted of her. In the art gallery, Gaston Lachaise and Marcel Duchamp converse while Fania Marinoff is serenaded on the piano by Virgil Thompson. Florine can be found on the lower terrace, talking art with Henry McBride, while Edward Steichen photographs the beautiful Elizabeth Duncan nearby. Maids comically react to dropped trays, and kiss under mistletoe, and in the chintz bedroom one can find Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas gazing at their reflections in the mirror.
Left Side of the House, with John Noble’s dolls. © http://www.cdhm.org/imag/1210/book-review2-1210.php
Noble undoubtedly had his fun with this playful display, as did many viewers. The favorable reactions were not unanimous, however; in fact many disagreed with the alteration of what had become an iconic piece in the Museum of the City of New York. Many of the Stettheimer relatives were reportedly angered by the decision, declaring that it ruined its integrity as a piece of art (Bloemink 1995, 274). Noble ignored the criticism, as did the museum; it wasn’t touched until almost 25 years later. John Noble became notorious for his influence in and passion for the Stettheimer Dollhouse. His obituary reads: “Only man, with his anxieties and his self-consciousness, rejects play as childishness, relegating it to his children, and expressing this most innocent of holy urges only in the cupidity of card games or the evasion of spectator sports” (Powers 2003).
In 1993, The Museum of the City of New York hired a team of conservators, and along with curators Sheila Clark, Amy Weinstein, and Phyllis Magidson, were charged to rethink the dollhouse’s meaning, message, and how its current aesthetic state reflected these ideas. Recently, I was able to speak with a conservator from the project to obtain a better idea of what the re-thinking entailed. Laura Stirton Aust, the owner of the conservation company ArtCare, was brought onto the project to fix wallpaper and other paper portions that had been suffering in the years since its creation. She described the process as wrought with intense conversation and debates; the first element up for discussion was whether to remove the dolls and Christmas decorations that John Noble had designed and implemented.
The conservators agreed that the materials Noble used were proving harmful to the house. The cellophane curtains were out-gassing and the lights had been fading the paper and fabrics. The team was divided -- many argued to keep the decorations, stating that they had become part of the dollhouse’s history, and should be kept to represent a specific era and stage in the life of the house. Others disagreed, stating that the decorations went directly against the wishes of Carrie, who had placed lemonade and verdant plants on the terrace suggesting warm weather. There were no signs of a party in her original design. As for the dolls, Carrie did not design them, and it was debatable as to whether she would have ever agreed with dolls of any kind. The team eventually agreed that the inclusion of Noble’s dolls were against Carrie’s wishes. The team’s Noble “schism” ended in the decision to remove all of the 1970s additions.
The conservators and curators agreed to conserve the original pieces whenever possible; when it was necessary for materials to be replaced, they recreated them “in fashion,” heeding the fact that Carrie was not a professional, and their very professional hands needed to mimic an “amateur.” Aust described her unease when replacements were necessary, though she understood that “sometimes artwork does die” and can no longer “communicate what the original artist was intending.” The team looked for guidance in the pictures taken of the house for the original 1947 catalogue. In the images, the house was clean and empty -- “it looked like a museum piece,” “everything was in its place, everything was set,” -- and the conservators aimed to leave the house in this exact way.
The most interesting part of my conversation with Aust was the deep connection she had formed with the dollhouse and to Carrie herself. When we were discussing how she arrived at certain conservation decisions, Aust would say things like “she [Carrie] would never want it to look like this.” She frequently speculated about Carrie and her family, offering her own hypotheses about the family’s dynamic and Carrie’s personality. She mentioned that the curators and the other conservators often had their own ideas about what Carrie would like, inciting many disagreements about a woman none of them had ever met. Her tone was not unlike John Noble’s throughout his book, as he also presumed to know who Carrie was, what she would have wanted, and how best to portray her through her dollhouse and dolls. All of these suppositions are unfounded.
The charisma of the object provokes these feelings of connections with the dollhouse, and thus Carrie herself, as the two have become synonymous. In his essay “Touching the Buddha,” Christopher Wingfield discusses Max Weber’s concept of charisma, that objects in and of themselves can be in possession of charisma. To explain this idea, Wingfield references a statue of a Buddha in a Birmingham, England museum, an object that is loved, admired, and formed connections with, more often than any other object in the museum. He postulates about the origin of this charisma, yet is unable to come up with any definitive conclusions for its viewer’s fixation. He argues that most objects do not have this capacity (Dudley 2010). The Stettheimer Dollhouse, I argue, is another one of these rare charismatic objects, an object more beloved than any other in its museum home.
Sarah M. Henry, the Museum of the City of New York’s current Deputy Director and Chief Curator, confirmed this assessment. During a brief conversation, Henry called the dollhouse the “treasure of the museum” and one of the most cherished and popular artifacts. She was adamant in her declaration that to call it a dollhouse is a complete misnomer. Instead, it is a “creation whose stories are deeply tied to the salon tradition and the artistic and literary past of the City.” She describes it as an “evocative and unique way” to display that period of time, “through the lenses of the Stettheimer sisters.” The artwork, she remarked, is the most prized and intriguing part of the house.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Casey and Sonja; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.
When I asked her about the changes that have occurred to the dollhouse, she mentioned its former display in a gallery amongst other toys, as opposed its current display, alone in a hallway. I inquired about whether she thought the museum would ever remove the dollhouse from view, and with much hesitation she explained that it has been moved around a lot to accommodate other shows and changing museum techniques, but that she hopes it will remain. She cautioned that things can always change, but there are no current plans to take it away. Henry also mentioned that about five years ago, they had a separate show where they exhibited the miniature works of art that had been left out of the dollhouse, pairing this with her reassurance that they are always finding a way to rejuvenate interest. To finish up our short conversation, I asked her why she thought visitors were interested in the dollhouse, and what they took away from their experience with the house. Henry explained that people liked it for the art, the depiction of a historical time period, and the proof that New York City has always been a place that “fosters exchange.”
Photo © Eliza de Sola Mendes
Though it has lived for almost 100 years, exhibited to four generations at the Museum of the City of New York, it continues to be a powerful presence. Throughout the years, many conversations have been incited by Carrie’s house. New Yorkers remember it as a child, again as an adult; they watch their grandchildren’s first experience with it. Journalists and art historians have fawned over it, calling it a “witty work of art” (Dunning 1976). It has been professed as “the most elaborate gesamtkunstwerk -- total work of art -- in town” and cherished for its capacity to host viewers inside its tiny walls with “intimations of conviviality” (Smith, Johnson, and Rosenberg 2011). David Levinthal, one of the dollhouse's many photographers through the years thinks of it as an art installation, praising its “wonderful sophistication and subtlety and humor” (Nathan, 1995).
Jerry Saltz, a prominent American art critic and regular visitor to the Stettheimer home, has suggested it have its own gallery. Andy Warhol once commented when asked about Florine, “her sister Carrie made some fabulous dollhouse that I loved at the Museum of the City of New York” (Saltz 2005). It has inspired works of art, most notably by Laurie Simmons, who was motivated to make her own dollhouse after a visit to the Museum of New York (Viladas 2000). It has also been featured as the set in a life-size fashion show (after being digitally enlarged, the models electronically placed within its walls). It was even displayed in an exhibition in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery (Mileaf 1996).
Curious as to whether the museum’s average visitors appreciated the house similarly to the critics and the curators (and myself), I began making my own observations of the dollhouse’s guests. I visited almost every week, observing reactions and talking to willing guests about their thoughts and ideas regarding the house. People were eager to speak with me; I hardly had to ask any questions beyond “What do you think of it?” before being barraged with thoughts and memories. The house was identified disparately, “lavish,” “precious,” “beautiful,” “aberrant,” “sophisticated,” “inviting,” and “creepy.” Many were visiting for the first time, and were fascinated by the physical production. They often described their favorite element, some citing the artwork; many more admired the elevator. A woman who had seen the house a few times before told me that every time she finds something she had never noticed before, something I too experienced with each return.
The Stettheimer Dollhouse on display at the Museum of the City of New York. The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Casey and Sonja; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.
Some patrons commented on pieces of furniture that were miniature versions of what they had in their homes growing up. These items spoke of a particular time in their personal history, and provoked memories. Many talked about their parents and grandparents, about how their houses were decorated -- of designs now lost to history. A number of people likened the house to a “snippet in time,” a “period piece.” One woman said that it “seems as if it always wanted to be in a museum.” A few connected it to the New York City of then versus the New York City of today. I once listened to a couple discuss current New York housing issues after wondering if such a home still exists in the city today. Even more memories were incited by the object’s classification as a dollhouse. An abounding number of women and girls (and even a few men) eagerly shared memories of their own dollhouse, connecting their own recollections with the Stettheimer dollhouse. Many talked about how the house was the “dollhouse that you dream of,” while reflecting on the modesty of their own.
Patrons remembered their own dollhouses made of cardboard, Barbie dream houses with carports, houses made for them by their mothers and fathers, miniature furniture passed down through three generations, GI Joe forts, dollhouses they had seen in English museums, and dollhouses that they had only imagined and desperately longed for as children. Many grew so nostalgic, they appeared to have left the museum in their minds, smiling as they confided in me how much they enjoyed playing with their little houses, crafting miniature furniture from hand, shopping with mom for plates and dishes at miniature stores, and walking their dolls through the house. One woman told a story about crocheting rugs and blankets for her dollhouse alongside her grandmother, and mid-sentence realized that her grandmother wasn’t just making things for the dollhouse, but passing down artistic traditions, and spending time that might not otherwise be available with her granddaughter.
They remembered coveting friends' toys, making school projects, and likened the house to life-size homes they had seen on vacation. Others connected it to other museum exhibits at the MCNY, and compared the miniature artworks to other pieces hanging on the walls of museums around the world. Literary, filmic, and contemporary television comparisons were also addressed. Someone mentioned that it reminded him of a house written about in a Tennessee Williams play. One of the surprisingly large number of guests who described the house as creepy (curiously enough, mostly men), said it reminded him of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Another said it reminded him of the movie Psycho, “ya know,” he went on, “all the lights are on, but nobody’s home.” The horror film comparison was brought up more than once. One patron confessed that he couldn’t stop thinking about Lester Freamon, a detective on the TV show The Wire, who crafted miniatures in his spare time.
The Stettheimer Doll House museum signage at the Museum of the City of New York. The Stettheimer Dollhouse: Art Gallery. Photo © flickr user Casey and Sonja; used under Creative Commons Licence CC BY-SA 2.0.
A few visitors were disconcerted by the absence of dolls, though most never mentioned it. Two friends got into a rather lengthy disagreement about whether there should be dolls or not. One wondered “why have the house without the dolls,” claiming that the dolls’ presence would liven the place up, the other refuting, that it never crossed her mind that it needed dolls, saying that the house “was so obviously alive” without them. One patron said that the house was “futile without the dolls.” Some guests speculated about the owner -- she had way too much time on her hands, she had some kind of psychological issues, “It creeps you out, someone spending two decades just fussing around.” Many had not taken the time to read the museum labels, and assumed the owner was a little girl, inventing their own stories, guiding their first time friends around the house, offering highly inaccurate information about the house’s creation. One woman said that objects like the dollhouse are “why I go to museums,” and confessed that she couldn’t wait to share her pictures with her mother.
Regardless as to each visitor’s own interpretation, it became very obvious, very quickly, that the house was loved and appreciated by many, even after only a few minutes spent with it. The relationships that visitors developed with the Stettheimer Dollhouse differed from the museum’s expectations, and I doubt Carrie Stettheimer could ever have anticipated the trajectory of her beloved house and the countless individuals it would invite into its magical world.
Conclusion: A Continuation of Speculation
If an object lives, can it also die, or is an object instead continually reborn, becoming a composite of many divergent lives, meanings, and memories? As a conservator, Laura Stirton Aust knows when something has lived its life, when it is time to be replaced. After almost 100 years of life, is the Stettheimer dollhouse in danger of death by way of replacement, by obsolescence? Dollhouses are inarguably in danger of antiquation. During a visit to a dollhouse shop in Manhattan, the owner, Leslie Edelman, reluctantly confessed to me that in the past few years he’s been losing business -- children are less interested in toys, more intrigued by technology. Indeed children of this generation seek immediate satisfaction through their now vast range of digital entertainment. The availability of toys with digital components, and their ability to efficiently provide education and play have catalyzed a decrease in consumption of more traditional toys, such as the dollhouse. Even miniature houses have become digital, with the growing popularity of games like the Simms, where you can create and decorate your own household and family.
Museums, too, have fallen prey to the immediate satisfaction-driven consumers of post modernization. Museums have become a kind of “mass medium,” a “site of spectacular mise-en-scène and operatic exuberance” (Huyssen 1993, 14). Today’s museum patrons, whom Andreas Huyssen calls “spectators,” arrive at museums not to gain cultural knowledge, but to find “instant illuminations, stellar events, and blockbuster shows” (1993, 14). Will these spectators lose interest in the Stettheimer Dollhouse in favor of interactivity and action packed screens? I, among countless other fans, certainly hope not. If it were removed, where then would it go? Would it be put into the collections, with other objects whose lives are deemed irrelevant? It is my opinion that the story of the Stettheimer Dollhouse is not yet through; it should not live in an archive, where its story will devolve into disrepair and stasis.
The house is meant to be seen and experienced, to spark imaginations, incite memories, and speak to the fabulous life of the Stettheimer sisters and their beloved New York City.
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